Adventures in Essen, Part 2: Attending as a Designer

If you’re a Designer and you’re at Essen, it’s for one of two reasons: You’re there to promote a game that’s launching or you’re there to pitch new games to publishers.

Matt Tolman (a fellow Game Artisan of Canada) had his game Undermining, published by Z-Man Games, launch at Essen. He had a few obligations throughout the fair, like demoing the game at the Z-Man booth multiple times and filming a video interview for BGG explaining the game. Even though Belfort just launched as well, our publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games, was not attending the Fair, so my goal at Essen was to pitch new games to publishers and make as many contacts as possible!

Planning for my trip to Essen started a few weeks before going to the actual Fair.  Sen, following our own advice as indicated in Step 17, used the Spiel ’11 GeekList on Boardgamegeek to create a database of all the publishers that might be interested in one or more of our new games.  He found out the contact information for each of them (sometimes much harder than it would seem, especially in foreign languages), prioritized which ones to contact and determined which of our prototypes should be shown to each based on their current product line or their submission guideline.

I then followed Step 18 and proceeded to email each of them explaining who I was and that I’d like to set up a meeting with them at Essen. Since this blog is all about being transparent and letting you see the entire process, here’s an example of an email I sent off to a prospective publisher:

Dear <Publisher>,

I’m going to be attending Essen this year and would like to arrange a time  to show you some of our new prototypes as noted below. Please respond with your preference.

Sen-Foong Lim and I are members of the Game Artisans of Canada and have designed Train of Thought and Belfort which have both been released this year from Tasty Minstrel Games.

We have a few games that we think would fit well with <Publisher>, and a sales sheet for each one is attached:

Bermuda Triangle: A time-travelling, pick-up and deliver, medium weight, strategy game for 2-4 players. Players program their boat’s movement using a unique mechanic in an effort to rescue more trapped explorers than the other players.


Swashbucklers
: A dice allocation game for 2-5 players. Players play pirates, rolling and assigning their dice to one of the 5 actions. Once all dice are rolled, players resolve the actions in an effort to get more boats or crew or attack each other with cannons in the sea, or with swords on land. We classify this as a medium-weight filler game.


Clunatics
: A party game for 3 or more people. Players must get any other player to guess a common phrase by providing the smallest of clues. On their own, the clues do not offer enough information, but add a couple more clues and it becomes more clear! A new twist on party games that keeps everyone involved at all times.


Lost for Words
: A word creation game that keeps everyone involved at all times with its unique 3×3 tile of letters. As one tile is flipped face up, players race to find the longest word possible in a straight line. Score is determined by subtracting the value of your word with that of the lowest valued word – so players are motivated to find any word to reduce other players’ scores! Fast and fun word finding game that can be played with 2-8 players in under 25 minutes.

We are also looking for international partners that are interested in publishing Train of Thought or Belfort outside of America. I’ll be bringing Train of Thought with me and if I receive my copy of Belfort in time then I’ll be bringing that along as well.

Thanks for your time.

I sent out about 15 emails or so to the publishers that we thought would be a good fit for the prototypes that we had to show. I got responses from most of them and we scheduled our meetings. I’d get a specific contact name, time slot and location (usually the publisher’s booth) and, after juggling a few conflicting, I had a pretty decent schedule with 4 meetings on Thursday, 4 on the Friday and 4 with publishers who said I should just stop by during the Fair at any time.

As indicated in Step 21, I packed my prototypes in individual Ziploc baggies and ensured they were clearly labeled with the game name and our contact information. I carried them in a backpack along with a folder full of 10 sales sheets for each game, as per Step 14, and an extra copy of rules for each game.  The amount of preparation we put into our pitches definitely helps make us look even more professional in the eyes of the publishers.  Many of them commented on how much they appreciated things like the Sales Sheets or how clearly everything was labeled.

I made sure to arrive before each meeting with time to spare because some publishers have multiple booths – if you go to the wrong one a few minutes before your meeting only to find that the meeting is supposed to be in another Hall, you might be out of breath for your meeting from all the running! I went up to the counter and asked a staff member if my contact was available as I had an appointment scheduled. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes and was soon escorted to a small room at the back of the booth – private and away from all of the hustle and bustle.

The publishers (or at least my contacts at the publisher – usually editors) were very nice and considerate – all of them! They all offered me something to drink and made sure I was comfortable. This was really nice as it made me feel more like an equal partner rather than someone who is begging them to publish my games. After a few pleasantries we got down to business.

Up Next: How I pitched games to publishers!

-Jay Cormier

Step 31: Get to Know Other Designers

<caveat – this probably should be somewhere near Step 12, and will be ret-conned in later!>

As a game designer, I have found it extremely helpful to surround myself not only with great playtesters, but also other game designers. Initially many people think that you might not want to talk to other game designers about your unpublished games because they could steal your ideas. I have never thought this was an issue, mostly because everyone and their brother has a dozen ideas for their own board games. The ideas aren’t what’s lacking. What’s lacking is the ability, and often the experience and knowledge of how to get a game to market. This is where fellow game designers can be a big boon to you.

I belong to a group called the Game Artisans of Canada. This group was founded in 2008 by a few game designers with an interest in sharing stories and experiences in an effort to help each other get their games to the market. Many of the GAC members have games published already, including Rob Bartel with Two by Two, Sean Ross with Haggis and Matt Tolman with Undermining – to name but a few. There are different chapters across Canada which each meet up on a regular basis for play testing. In addition to this, they have an online forum which everyone across Canada can ask questions, share playtest sessions or debate game design philosophies. There’s a whole process to become a Game Artisan, which involves a trial period as a Journeyman and a lot of mentorship from your local chapter.

Attendees of Cardstock 2011! Look at all that brainpower!

In addition to our chapter meet ups and the online forum, GAC has an annual get together called Cardstock. This is heaven for game designers. 20 or so designers meet up and playtest each other’s’ prototypes over a long weekend! This year it was in Calgary and many of us flew in to take part in this experience. I was flabbergasted at all the creativity and brainpower that was at Cardstock. Every game that Sen and I brought to Cardstock left a much better game. Talk about invigorating!

The Game Artisans even have their own newsletter called Meeple Syrup that is dedicated to celebrating the organization’s successes. Issue 3 was just released and is available here.

Sen and I joined them in 2010 and have had numerous examples of how they have helped us become better designers and probably published more often.

1. Game Designers make the best playtesters. Game designers understand the need for balance and how a suggestion can lead to other issues. They understand that sometimes a playtest session needs to stop in order to tweak the rules before starting again. The feedback we get from playtesting with other game designers is always fantastic and leaves us excited to take another crack at it.

2. Game Designers have a ton of various experiences that each of us alone don’t have yet. Have a question about how a contract should be worded? Ask GAC. Not sure how to contact a publisher? Ask GAC. Trying to figure out how to solve a game design problem you’re having? Ask GAC. There’s a ton of knowledge amongst all the members of GAC.

3. Game Designers have contacts. We have already experienced a few examples where one GAC member has helped another get a game to a publisher and get published!

  • Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games asked me and Sean Ross about our opinions of the game Alba Longa, designed by GAC member Graeme Jahns. It was being published in the Netherlands by Quined and Michael was thinking about bringing it to America. I told him my honest opinion, as did Sean, and he decided to co-publish the game with Quined.
  • Quined then asked Graeme if there were other designers with games that he think they’d be interested in. Graeme thought of our game, Akrotiri and they were interested enough to send an email to us asking us for the rules. After reading the rules, they asked for a prototype. They’ve played the game twice and are still fascinated by it. Time will tell if that turns into a publishing contract!
  • Rob Bartel introduced us to Gamewright and they now have our game Jam Slam and are still deciding about whether they are going to publish it or not.
  • Dylan Kirk has contacts in China and when one of them asked if he knew of any games that might be a good fit for them, he told them about Train of Thought. On my trip to Essen coming up, I have a meeting set up with that publisher to see if they’d be interested in publishing the game in China!

4. Blind Playtesting! With different chapters across Canada this gives everyone that’s part of GAC the ability to get their game blind playtested. This means sending the game to another chapter with the rules, and letting them figure it out on their own. This is so valuable as this is the experience that a publisher would get when we would send a game to them – so the feedback from these sessions are extremely helpful.

5. Improved Quality. While this goes hand in hand with some of the other points in this list, it deserves its own callout because I’m referring also to the perceived quality of all games by members of GAC by publishers. Publishers are already starting to recognize the abilities of GAC. They know that if they receive a game from a member of GAC, that it has been playtested by other designers and most likely, even blind playtested. The goal would be to get to a point where a publisher comes to our group to ask for game submissions.

So while you may or may not be able to be a part of something like the Game Artisans of Canada, you should definitely surround yourself with other game designers. Try online places like Meetup.com or Craigslist, or even by asking your local game store if they can host a game designer night once a month – and see who shows up! You’ll become a better designer because of it.

~ Jay Cormier

Online, there’s the Boardgame Design Forum – http://www.bgdf.com – where like-minded people post about their designs. You could also use http://www.boardgamegeek.com and post in your local forum to try to find a design group or start up your own. An online group is a great place to bounce ideas off of people and a local group is excellent for playtesting.

Another thing that a group gives us access to is a huge collective boardgaming experience. Jay and I have played a ton of games, but there’s only so many hours in a day! With the difference in tastes and personal collections, we can draw on the gaming knowledge of many instead of just the two of us. So when we propose an idea, we’ll often get the reply of “Have you played yet? It sounds pretty similar.” While you might think this is discouraging, it isn’t – either we take a look at Game X and decide that it’s similar and we’ve saved ourselves the time of re-inventing the wheel and potential embarassment of pitching it to a publisher; or we find out that our game is different and, hopefully, better!

The group can also help bolster confidence in your designs – there have been a few times when people in the GAC were thinking of abandoning a project, but other members helped the game stay on the rails and move closer towards a final versions.

We also help promote each others’ games through things like newletters and Rob Bartel’s “Canadian Heritage Collection” catalog – a catalogue of games designed or published by Canadians that is sent to Canadian game retailers. Jay will be bringing one of Al Leduc’s prototypes to Essen to give to an interested publisher, Jolly Thinkers. We help with suggesting publishers, using our links and contacts when possible, to get our colleagues’ games in front of the decision makers. Jay will be pitching Matt Musselman’s “Bordeaux” to Queen and Alea at Essen later this month. Fingers crossed!

Help can be as simple as amking a suggestion. Why, even tonight, I suggested that a new designer take a theme that Jay and I had been toying around with and run with it, because his game fit better than any we’ve been able to think of so far! Hopefully, something becomes of it. We just want to make good games and help good games to be made.

In fact, both Jay and I are even working in collaboration with other GAC designers on separate games. Jay is working with Graeme Jahns, Ryley Tolman, and Gavan Brown on a party game tentatively called “Like It” while I’m involved in co-designing Yves Tourigny’s brainchild “Midnight Men” with him.

Like It logo

Like a boss.

“Like It” was sparked at a late-night session at Cardstock 2011 after the group had played “Clunatics” and Gavan seeded an idea. The next morning, Jay, Ryley and Graeme were eagerly discussing it and a quick prototype was mocked up in short order. There’s some really great mechanics in this game that have been great to watch develop over time on the GAC forums. That’s the beauty of the internet – connecting people in Vancouver, Calgary, and Lethbridge in order to create something new.

The Nightwatchman, from "Midnight Men"

The iconic Nightwatchman, bane of evildoers everywhere, brings justice to the streets of Cosmo City in Yves Tourignay's "Midnight Men"

My involvement with “Midnight Men” comes much later in the development of it; Yves had already done much of the work, including the all-important part of getting the game signed to Canadian game publisher Filosophia for a 2012 release. I became enamoured with the project as soon as Yves began discussing it, due to my love affair with comics from a young age, and was eager to try it out. I finally got to play it at Cardstock 2011 and it was apparent that the potential was there, but that there were kinks to work out. I was determined to help with that. After re-creating my own prototype version and tabling it with my local playtest group in London, I provided even more feedback to Yves. So much so that I think I was driving him to drink! I suggested that Yves discuss the possibility of me being part of the development team with Filosophia, but Yves did one better and offered me a role in the actual design of the game. I accepted immediately as I’ve always wanted to make a superhero game myself. Yves has created a richly detailed world and I am honoured to be part of bringing it to life. The progress that Yves and I have made on the game since we began the partnership has been a real testament to the power of teamwork.

This year has been a banner year for Jay and I as designers and it’s in no small part to our links to the Game Artisans of Canada.  2012 will be even better, if all goes as planned.  So, If you’re serious about game design, do yourself a favour and seek out like-minded people. It makes the job that much easier – as the old saying goes, “Many hands make light work.”

~ Sen-Foong Lim